Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures: redux

(It’s been a while since I posted, though I’ve kept cooking, delightedly, out of the SK cookbook. But these I couldn’t resist.)

Spaghetti squash and black bean tacos with queso fresco

Y’all, if squash tacos are wrong, I don’t want to be right.

I used to be a taco purist. I was raised in New Mexico, which like most US-Mexico border states has its own sub-type of Mexican cuisine, and things other than meat or maybe beans, and some sort of melty cheese, don’t enter into the taco equation. Fish tacos? No. That is crazy talk. California crazy talk.

Even when I started cooking vegetarian tacos, I wanted a mixture that at least looked as much like beef as possible, which is why I like using black lentils in my lentil tacos.

It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco and then Portland that I became corrupted had my horizons expanded and started eating crazy things like tofu tacos and soy curl tacos. Still, these things attempt to appear like meat. They’re seasoned. They’re meat substitutes. Robo Taco even calls theirs a vegan al pastor, and al pastor is pretty much the most non-vegetarian thing there is.

But then I had potato tacos. Potato? In a taco? And then I went to Austin, where breakfast tacos are a thing (a thing I was and am slightly obsessed with, although for some strange reason I did a terrible job of documenting this obsession), and I had awesome, weird tacos of various sorts.

And then I saw this recipe, and I was hungry for something with squash, and I love squash with black beans (okay, so I have made squash empanadas before, but those aren’t tacos! really they aren’t!) it looked super duper easy to make for lunch tomorrow. And it is. And then I couldn’t resist trying one and I ate it right up without bothering with a plate.

So I might be wrong. But I’m happy there, in Wrong Land. Please don’t come and get me.

In all seriousness, this is an easy recipe and SO GOOD. I skipped out on the cilantro garnish (it’s the middle of winter, there’s no good-looking cilantro around) and chose scallions instead (it’s a double dose of onion, but it works). I used taco seasoning I had on hand instead of adding cumin and coriander to chile powder. I did use canned beans, but this recipe would, I am 99% certain, be about ten times more awesome if only I had access to leftover SK black bean ragout. So you should do that. And I got feta, which is a suggested substitution. No queso fresco at Whole Foods, not a huge surprise. It takes these even a bit farther from the taco classic, but we’re already out here in Wrong Land, so don’t worry, buy some feta. Or goat cheese. Something crumbly and white. And then put some Aardvark on it, like you do.

Being good at gratitude

Gratitude is one of the few spiritual/happiness practices that comes naturally to me, plus I love food and cooking, so naturally Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It feels appropriate for Thanksgiving to arrive now, because I’ve been in an almost constant state of gratitude lately. Recently I tweeted:

It seemed a little arrogant to claim to absolutely be the luckiest girl in the world (I do have a little Canadian modesty in me, albeit not much) but I do feel that way lately. Even my small sadnesses reveal my luck: I’m a little sad I can’t be in three places at once today, but so happy that I know I have three places I could be. I’m grateful for my given family (and my sister-in-law who recently joined it), my long-time sweetie, and my friend-family. Friends are the family you can choose, and I couldn’t have chosen better.

I’m also lucky to have a job, a kitty, and an apartment I love. I’m lucky to belong to a passionate community of active transportation and urbanism advocates who are also, in large part, great friends and acquaintances. I’m lucky to live in a city of responsive government (how many people can say their city’s chief signals engineer answers their emails personally?).

None of these things is perfect. The active transportation community could stand to be more inclusive (and seems to be working on it). Portland city government has its problems, both small and large (institutional paralysis, police treatment of the mentally ill). My apartment could stand to be about three feet longer and have more kitchen counter space and another closet. Having a kitty means I worry when I travel and have to arrange for catsitting (prompting another dose of gratefulness for my friends). Thanksgiving even has its own issues, from distorted history and cultural appropriation to turkey suffering.

I can’t help seeing and acknowledging the imperfections as well as the glories; my brain seems to be built for realism and problem-solving. But that itself makes my appreciation both sweeter and more poignant. I try to cultivate a true thankfulness for what I actually have, not some airbrushed version of it. And recognizing that there are problems, and that so many people don’t have what they need and want, redoubles my lifetime commitment to making the world just a little better.

Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (5)

Over the holidays, since I wasn’t going to be cooking a lot of my traditional holiday stuff with family, I decided to make myself a few special meals. And what better book than Smitten Kitchen?

#6: Baked ranchero eggs with blistered jack cheese and lime crema

This is one of those recipes that when I saw it, I immediately thought “Where has this been all my life?” Turns out, I feel that way even more after making it, not only because it was fabulous but also because it has sub-parts and techniques that I can repurpose for an easier, more yummy life, and it’s very easy to scale down if you don’t want to make all dozen eggs of it. The ranchero sauce is super easy — just blend chopped onion, tomatoes, and jalapeño in the blender, then reduce (mixing in beans optionally, although I would never skip the beans myself :). The extras are a tiny bit fussy, but can be made ahead pretty easily and really add to the flavor and texture of the dish — Deb knows how to step up the garnishes to take a great dish to Awesome! The simmered/baked egg technique worked out just perfectly — the addition of blistering the cheese under the broiler, which also finishes the eggs, is excellent. It comes out bubbly and amazing.

I executed this one almost exactly as described except for halving the recipe because a) there’s only one of me, and b) I only have a 10-inch skillet), forgetting to halve the tortilla quantity, and using pepper jack instead of plain jack, because why on earth not? I ended up overcooking the eggs slightly because I wanted to be sure they got cooked enough, but only a bit — so I’d suggest not being tooo conservative with cooking the whites during the simmer, unless you prefer hard yolks too. They’ll get a good finish from the broil. I used about 3/4 of the tortilla strips I made, so you can definitely up the quantity a bit if you like tortilla. Finally, I’d suggest monitoring the wateriness of your sauce carefully. I did reduce mine just as the recipe describes, but I like it more dry, so it was still on the watery side for my taste.

After I made this I realized I still couldn’t eat more than two of the six eggs in one sitting, and they will get overcooked if you reheat (as Deb warns, though it’s hardly a great catastrophe!), but I realized that in the future I can actually make the sauce ahead, then make tiny individual servings in my mini-cast-iron using just two eggs, a sprinkling of cheese and some garnishes (made ahead, with the tortilla strips refreshed in the toaster oven). So definitely don’t hesitate to make this if you’re alone, although of course it would also be great shared with two to twelve friends!

#7: Big breakfast latkes

Finally, a recipe I have every ingredient for! These are traditional latkes, onion and potato with flour-egg binding. Easy peasy, but on the obscure side, you should have a cheesecloth or ‘lint-free dishcloth’ to squeeze the liquid out of the potatoes. I decided to live with some lint in my latkes. The squeezing is apparently important to get the potatoes dry enough to fry well, so don’t skip it. Use paper towel if you have to. I was worried I was getting it too dry because it was kind of hard to mix the potato and onion into the binding, but once everything was well mixed, it was perfect.

Fried cakey things are not one of my talents, and I’ve only gotten into eggs for cooking more recently, so it was really fun to just take a run at the traditional. They came out absolutely great and the one I ate was fabulous with a fried egg on top (one of Deb’s serving suggestions). I wish I hadn’t frozen all my applesauce yesterday, because the remaining ones would be great that way. The ratio of potato to onion and the amount of salt and pepper was perfect. Yum.

#8: Sugar-snap salad with sesame-miso dressing

I made this a while back, and heavily adapted it to fit what I had in the fridge, which was cabbage and radishes and spring onions. Yeah, no sugar snaps — it’s winter. But I was convinced this was the perfect use for the veggies I had. And it came out very well. The dressing is awesome-tasting. It was filling without being heavy. So I’d say you can definitely adapt this for different veggies, although having a sweetish one would help to balance the tang and salt of the dressing. It was a bit fussy to make with cutting everything up, but once the dressing is made and blended it’s worth it. Definitely nice to use a VitaMix or something you have one, to get really smooth dressing. And it makes the cutting less important.

Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (4)

#5: Slow cooker black bean ragout

Apparently a ragout is a main-dish stew (related to the Italian ragu), usually cooked long and slow. Now you know!

This is a basic bean dish, probably not that different from one you’d find in any veggie or vegan cookbook, and that’s exactly what I wanted for post-Thanksgiving. It does come with some interesting suggested extras like lime-pickled red onions (I used the onions I pickled with the celery for the potato salad) and cumin crema (I used some of the Greek yogurt I had from the galette), and it was nice to be inspired to take the toppings up a notch. The result was tasty in an understated way and super easy — you just chop the onions and mince or crush the garlic, then put everything (onions, garlic, beans, spices) into the crock pot to cook. No presoaking required!

My crockpot cooked the beans in about five hours on high, and I turned it down to low while I made some rice once they were done, because I didn’t want to make the garlic toasts she suggests (the recipe also says you can put the beans in anything you want — including tacos, which after my breakfast taco experiences in Austin, sounds awesome). I served it over rice with scallions, cilantro, avocado (thanks to Whole Foods 5/$5 ‘Black Friday’ special), and the onions and crema.

One bowl of it was totally satisfying and tasty. I’m going to have it for dinner again tonight, and I’ll probably make it again in the near future, starting it in the morning and running it on low while I’m at work. I don’t often make full meals in my crockpot but I’d like to do more. And I’ve made black beans in the crockpot before, even from a cookbook recipe (Vegan Lunchbox, if I remember correctly) but I preferred this one to any other that I’ve made. So it definitely needs to go into the regular rotation, unlike most of the recipes I’ve tried so far which have been great but mostly on the complicated side (except the kale salad which I also want to make again).

Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (3)

#4: Butternut squash and caramelized onion galette

This is one of the recipes that immediately hit me with a “Where has this been all my life?” kind of force. I love winter squash, lately I’m obsessed with caramelized onions, and anything that involves expanding my pastry dough repertoire is a fun challenge. I decided to make it for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s labor-intensive enough that I’d want to reserve it for a special occasion, but the results, at least in my opinion, are beautiful and very tasty: so worth it. I did see a few partial pieces left on people’s plates, but I also got a few nice compliments. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but certainly to some people’s.

The dough is made with a mix of flour, salt, butter, sour cream or greek yogurt, vinegar, and water. I’ve never made dough with something like yogurt or sour cream before, and I couldn’t tell you exactly what effect it had. Mostly what I noticed is that the dough was BUTTERY. My family pie dough recipe is shortening-based, and I usually use Earth Balance to make my pastry, so it was really noticeable to me — it tasted rich and decadent and even a little too much at times. It came together fairly easily — certainly easier than pie dough because you can just toss in the liquid ingredients and stir everything together, although requiring more effort to be worked down to the texture she specified (‘like couscous’). The dough has to be chilled for at least an hour and can go up to 2 days (I did mine overnight), so you definitely want to make it first.

I used kabocha squash instead of butternut, and found the prep a bit easier, but still labor intensive, because it has to be chopped before being roasted. I also ended up using Emmental cheese instead of fontina because (who’d have guessed?) Safeway doesn’t stock fontina. The assembly was pretty easy once everything was prepped, although I wish the recipe had reminded me to take the dough out of the refrigerator about the same time I started the baking/caramelizing, because it was a bit hard to roll out.

Nevertheless, the galette came out of the oven looking just like the picture, except without the egg glaze because I wanted to keep it egg-free (and I’m lazy). So overall, this was a huge win, and I intend to make more galettes in the future because they are awesome, although I may use a different dough to avoid the BUTTER situation and the necessity of buying ingredients I rarely use.

Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (2)

Update on the gratin: I baked some delicata squash tonight and pureed a bit of it with some vegetable broth, to put under the leftover gratin. As I expected, it was delicious that way.

#3: Kale salad with dried cherries, walnuts, and goat cheese

My lackadaisical grocery shopping also interfered with the execution on this in that I entirely forgot the walnuts. Although I think they’d be a great addition, their absence did not in any way interfere with the awesomeness of this salad. The dressing is fabulous and really easy. I have no idea why I’ve never made homemade honey mustard dressing before, but it comes together in about 30 seconds (counting the shaking) and tastes fantastic. The crumbled goat cheese kind of melts into the dressing as you toss it, and the kale and radishes get very tender, although the radishes retain some crunch. If I hadn’t already had gratin and been on my way out of the house, I could easily have eaten half the salad on my own. It claims to serve 4, but if you like kale, I’d say two unless you’ve got something else just as good on the table.

Honestly, though, my second thought besides “That tastes great” was “Obviously this is a salad made for someone who’s not that wild about kale, despite being a raw kale salad” (which is what the intro note is all about, so it’s definitely true). The dressing covers up the taste of the kale almost completely, which bummed me out a little since I love kale. And the radishes didn’t come though all that well either. Mine are a tad old but alone they still taste fine. The dressing is just very strong. I also think I might chop the radishes next time instead of paper-thin slicing them. I’m not exactly sure why they’re so thin, but I just didn’t like the way they behaved. I also wanted shorter kale ribbons so I halved the leaves before chiffonading them (the technique is described, but not named, which is very accessible but a missed learning opportunity). I also replaced cherries with cranberries, which are cheaper.

Overall, it reminded me of VeganYumYum’s BLT salad, which is absolutely my favorite thing to do with raw kale, and whose dressing is much fattier, so it could be a nice simple replacement for that by hitting some of the same cravings. Tempeh crumbles — not bacon ones, but plainer ones — might be a good addition to make it a meal!

Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (1)

I just got the Smitten Kitchen cookbook and have been drooling over the recipes. I decided to make a few this week and see how it went.

#1: Fingerlings vinaigrette with sieved eggs and pickled celery

ZOMG, if you’ve never put eggs through a sieve (and really, who has?) you are missing out. This salad is awesome. I was skeptical about the pickled celery, but it does a great job of adding crunch while reinforcing the vinegary taste — there isn’t a ton of dressing for the amount of potato, so this works well. The sieved eggs merge a little with the dressing and get smeary on the potatoes. It’s good.

Variations: True to spirit — Deb’s recipes often come from pantry constraints and previous experience — I used the yellow potatoes from my CSA instead of fingerlings and just cooked them cut in half and then cut them into quarters on the plate to get similar sizing. My celery was smaller so I used 3 stalks (a measurement of quantity here would be great, but you can estimate by pouring the pickling mixture into a bowl and cutting about enough to fit in with it) and I used a small red onion (again from my CSA) rather than buying shallots (which are hard to find and more expensive). I chose savory and parsley for my herbs (optional), but I think chives and parsley would actually be ideal because I love chive with potato and the parsley is nice and fresh.

#2: Wild rice gratin with kale, caramelized onions, and baby swiss

I wasn’t as enchanted by this one, which surprised me because it’s full of things I love. I’m going to blame it on my execution, since even more than the other one, my pantry / shopping forgetfulness and some sloppy construction (lack of sufficient bowls) meant that I didn’t quite execute on this as intended. It was just a little thin and too oily and crunchy for me, although the flavor is good. I think just didn’t hit tonight’s cravings, too. I really wanted something hearty and thick, and without a sauce and spread across a too-large baking dish, this just wasn’t going to be it.

Variations/execution failures: I halved the recipe and used barley to make up the amount of rice I was missing (reasoning that it’s also nutty and chewy; this actually worked well and I’d probably do it again). I used more oil than called for with the onions, more kale, less broth, more cheese, and cornmeal instead of breadcrumbs (I just forgot to buy them, oops). I don’t have a smaller baking dish, so everything was spread out a little too much, and I didn’t pre-mix the gratin filling before putting it in the dish and carefully salt/pepper it so it would be evenly flavored, so I ended up with under- and over-seasoned spots. It’s easy to see how it ended up too oily and crunchy — although surprisingly, I really wanted MORE kale. Kale cooks down like whoa, so it almost disappeared into the onions and rice. If you don’t really like kale, you can go for the amount in the recipe, but if you like it, I suggest more. I think this would be great with some cooked butternut squash, too, either in chunks or as a sauce. That would add some smoothness and heartiness, and I think when I try again (which I will) it will be with that addition.

Also, I have no idea what the heck baby swiss is. I wonder if this is a misprint and it should be baby kale, caramelized onions, and swiss?

Pancakes and cultural traditions

Status updates on Facebook from several friends reminded me that today is Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day. Pondering the distribution of the updates, I noticed that most of them came from the UK, where I celebrated Pancake Day 2005. Prior to that, I wasn’t aware of Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day except as Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is the more common name for the day and celebration in the US — except, notably, as part of some church traditions, whence the remaining status updates about pancakes came.

Seeing all this and recalling fond memories of Pancake Day 2005, I decided to make pancakes tonight for dessert. But while eating them, I realized it’s a strange thing for me to do. It’s isolated from its UK cultural context because I’m in the US, and I don’t belong to the religious traditions that would make it appropriate for me to do it here.

Furthermore, Pancake Day started as a way to use up extra oil and eggs, or so says Wikipedia. But I made Vegan Dad’s sweet breakfast crepes, which have only a tiny amount of oil and no egg (being vegan). They’re also really crepes, obviously, not pancakes, but the pancakes I had in the UK were really a lot more like crepes anyway, so it made sense. (I actually used silken tofu rather than the flaxseed, and it worked just as well, maybe better, so that was a happy substitution.)

I also departed from tradition in using lime instead of lemon for the flavoring liquid (lemon and sugar is the usual).

Not a traditional way to celebrate the holiday, but maybe it’ll become my traditional way of celebrating it!

Easy creamy kabocha squash-cranberry penne with fennel

This isn’t so much a recipe because I didn’t actually write down the amounts, but I thought this turned out well and it was easy.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 lb penne pasta
1 large fennel bulb, very thinly sliced
1/2 kabocha squash, peeled and cut into 1/2-1″ chunks
A couple tablespoons each soymilk, Tofutti BTCC, and TJs Cranberry Apple Butter

Start the water for the pasta and squash. Simmer the squash until nearly fork-tender. Meanwhile, saute the fennel in the oil over medium heat until tender and browning. Add pasta to the water when it’s ready.

Add the squash to the pan and continue sauteing until the squash is tender. Stir frequently to prevent sticking. Add a little salt and pepper.

When the squash is tender and everything is beginning to stick, add the soymilk, tofutti, and cranberry apple butter. Stir until well mixed and season to taste.

When the pasta is ready, drain it and mix the squash mixture with the pasta. Yum.

Sunset Salad

Clotilde’s Grated Carrots and Beets is a terrific way to try beets (raw or otherwise) if you are a little skeptical about them. But I don’t think it has a very good name; I always look for it under “Beet and Carrot Salad” before I remember that the name in English is a translation from French. Maybe it sounds more fun in French, but if someone told me “We’re having grated carrots and beets for lunch”, I wouldn’t be excited.

I have sunsets on the brain today, so I thought of a new and (imo) better name for it: Sunset Salad. It’s such a pretty meld of oranges, pinks, and reds that the name really works.